In his last official appearance at the annual ceremony commemorating the end of World War II, Emperor Akihito on Wednesday repeated his “deep remorse” over the conflict that led to the deaths of tens of millions of people in Asia and elsewhere.

“Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated,” the Emperor said in his speech during the event marking Japan’s Aug. 15, 1945, surrender held at the Nippon Budokan hall in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, where he employed the key phrase “deep remorse” for the fourth consecutive year.

To the surprise of many, the Emperor first inserted the phrase into his annual speech in 2015, when the nation marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the conflict.

He also slightly tweaked his annual message to add for the first time ever his “reflection on years of peace long observed after the end of the war.”

The Emperor, who is set to abdicate on April 30 next year, becoming Japan’s first sitting emperor in more than 200 years to relinquish the throne while alive, then concluded with the usual vow: “Together with all of our people, I now pay my heartfelt tribute to all those who lost their lives in the war, both on the battlefield and elsewhere, and pray for world peace and for the continuing development of our country.”

The Emperor’s mention of deep remorse put him in sharp contrast with Abe, who continued to circumvent acknowledgement of Japan’s wartime responsibilities in his speech.

But on the 73rd anniversary of Japan’s defeat, the prime minister did refrain from paying a visit to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, long considered a symbol of the nation’s wartime militarism.

His decision not to visit the controversial Shinto shrine, which enshrines Class-A war criminals as well as millions of war dead, was apparently meant to avoid complicating relations with China and South Korea, where bitter memories of Japan’s wartime past persist. The two nations have long blasted official visits by Japanese prime ministers to the shrine as a sign that Tokyo remains unrepentant. Abe is reportedly eyeing a trip to China in October.

Abe instead sent Masahiko Shibayama, an aide and a lawmaker in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, to Yasukuni to proffer a monetary donation called tamagushi-ryō out of his own pocket.

In his address, meanwhile, Abe steered clear of acknowledging Japan’s wartime activities for the sixth consecutive year, further setting himself apart from his predecessors who spoke of “profound remorse” over “tremendous damage and suffering” the country inflicted on its Asian neighbors. He did emphasize, as he has done every year since 2015, that the horrors of war must not be repeated.

Also conspicuously absent from this year’s speech was a statement that Japan “abhors war” — a phrase that Abe first adopted in 2015 and kept using until last year. It was not immediately clear what the intention was behind this omission.

“Since the end of the war, Japan has consistently and assiduously walked the path of a country that values peace,” Abe said. “Never again will we repeat the devastation of war. Humbly facing history, we are determined never to deviate from this steadfast course, no matter what the era may bring.”

All of Abe’s predecessors after 1993, including those in the conservative LDP, referred in one way or another to the responsibility Japan bore for the war in their speeches at the Aug. 15 memorial ceremony.

Even Abe himself, upon attending the ceremony for the first time as prime minister in 2007, inherited his predecessors’ stance that Japan caused “tremendous damage and suffering” to the people in Asia and expressed his “profound remorse.”

But after returning to power in December 2012, Abe took it upon himself to change the wording of the speech drastically and eliminate any mention of the havoc Japan wreaked on its Asian neighbors and remorse over the country’s wartime militarism.

Instead, he made it more future-oriented, shifting emphasis to how Japan is determined to contribute to world peace and carve out a bright future for itself.

“We will make a tireless effort to tackle various issues that can become a hotbed of conflict and bring about a world in which all people can live in a way that is rich in spirit,” Abe said..

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